In her first Opening the World column for Our Sunday Visitor, Catherine Cavadini, a professor…
Opening the Word: The soul seeks the Word
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in one of his many sermons on the Song of Songs, said it best, I think: “The soul seeks the Word, and consents to receive correction, by which she may be enlightened to recognize him, strengthened to attain virtue, moulded to wisdom, conformed to his likeness, made fruitful by him, and enjoy him in bliss. These are the reasons the soul seeks the Word.”
That’s what Advent is about: seeking the Word. Last week’s message was that we should seek the Lord with our heads raised, “vigilant at all times” (Lk 21:36). This week we learn more, that seeking the Lord is spiritual and moral, a matter of interior preparation, repentance, forgiveness and conversion. Less a seeking with material eyes, the seeking of Advent is more the soul’s seeking.
Advent is about the advent of Christ — his several advents, in fact. The first is historical: that ancient story, the greatest ever told, of his birth in Bethlehem, his beautiful lowly Mother, the angels, the shepherds. The second is spiritual: the advent of Christ in the soul. The third is eschatological: the coming of Christ at the end of everything, his final advent in “power and great glory” (Lk 22:27). Woven for us liturgically and sacramentally Sunday by Sunday in the Church, these several advents guide and shape us, dressing us in a sense spiritually for a Eucharistic, mystical and ultimately eternal banquet. That is, it prepares us for Christmas, for the birth of Christ — infant, Word, sacrifice, bread and flesh for the life of the world (cf. Jn 6:51).
|December 5 – Second Sunday of Advent|
Which is how we’re to hear John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel, as herald of these advents, quoting Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4; Is 40:3). John is clear: Preparing the way for the Lord is to experience a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). One thinks here of Ezekiel, of the sprinkling cleansing of idolatrous impurities, the spiritual washing necessary to receive God’s gift of a new heart (cf. Ez 36:25-26). For us, millennia removed from John’s preaching, these words speak immediately to the second advent of Christ, what St. Bernard called Christ’s advent “into humankind.” That is, for us, John the Baptist is more immediately the herald of an intimate advent: the birth of Jesus Christ in the soul.
We are reminded that God acts within history: in the Word become flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), in bodily resurrection, in sacraments. Ours is not merely a religion and redemption of the mind but of the body, too. And this bears on the world, and even politically and historically on the Caesars and Herods and Pilates of our own day, because it reminds us how God truly shapes events: not through the politically powerful but through the holy, through those who’ve welcomed the true King into their hearts, the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rv 19:16). It reminds us the Church is the bearer of the final meaning of history, not any empire or nation.
And it’s a reminder that, as Christians, our first task is penitential, not political; that if we’re to contribute anything good to the world — if we’re to be good citizens or politicians or co-workers or neighbors — we should first welcome Christ into our hearts, which is a matter of repentance, the forgiveness of our sins. Baruch dreamed of a Jerusalem clothed in the “splendor of glory” (Bar 5:1). For our world, our country, we may similarly dream. But it begins with us, inside us, with the confession of our sins — no one else’s. It begins with repentance, with that trip to the confessional, a changed life and a heart that’s become a womb for Christ, ready to give him birth in this world still so desperately in need of Christmas.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books.